Sunday, August 23, 2009

Do students and parents have to keep silent when teachers or coaches are abusive? California court says NO.

Coach Mike Lee

Written Complaint to School Board Held Protected Under Anti-SLAPP Law
Summer 2006
Lee v. Fick (2005) 35 Cal. App. 4th 89
By Kelly T. Boruszewski
Lorber, Greenfield & Polito, LLP

Michael Lee, a high school baseball coach, sued a parent for, among others, libel, and slander. These causes of action were based upon that parent publishing a letter to the Conejo Valley Unified School District claiming Lee was manipulative to the players, the parents, and the other coaches; verbally abusive to the kids; emotionally abusing the kids with his outbursts of anger and favoritism to certain players; and threw a fit in the dugout and verbally attacked the parent’s
son for not respecting his authority.

The slander case of action was based on the allegation that the parent stated to at least eight people Lee was a bad coach, was unethical, and had severe anger and emotional and anger problems. In both causes of action, Lee alleged the parents acted with malice and caused him to lose his job.

In response to the Complaint, the parent brought a special motion to strike (anti-SLAPP motion) pursuant to Section 425.16 of the Code Civil Procedure. Section 425.16, subdivision (b)(1) provides: “A cause of action against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the
plaintiff will prevail on the claim.” Subdivision (e)(1) provides that an act in furtherance of a person’s right of petition or free speech includes, “any written or oral statement . . . made before a . . . judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law . . . .”

Section 425.16 requires a two-step analysis: First, determination whether defendants had made a threshold showing that the challenged causes of action arise from a protected activity. If so, then, second, whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim, i.e., the complaint is sufficient and is supported by facts sufficient to sustain a judgment in plaintiff’s favor.
To that end, the parent filed a declaration stating Lee became angry as her son when the son “shook off” Lee’s baseball signs, to which Lee verbally and physically threatened the son, poking a finger in his chest.

As a result, the parent wrote a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” alleging libelous statements. The libel cause of action arose from the letter the parent sent to the school board.


Civil Code section 47, subdivision (b) provides that any publication made in any “judicial proceeding” or “in any other official proceeding authorized by law” is privileged. Thus, communications to an official agency intended to induce the agency to initiate action are part of an “official proceeding,” including complaints to school authorities about a teacher or principal in the performance of his or her official duties.

Lee submitted an affidavit in opposition to the motion. He declared the parent’s son was rude to the coaches and had a bad attitude, and denied that he physically or verbally abused the son.

When Lee read the parent letter submitted to the school district, he could not believe what was alleged. School officials conducted a four-week investigation, and Lee continued as baseball coach for the next season. It was only after the parent then met with the principal of the school that Lee was terminated as head coach.
Lee argued the parents never intended to initiate any legally authorized proceedings because the letter was not addressed to a school official, but “To Whom It May Concern.” The Court held that the address on the letter is not determinative and the parent’s uncontradicted declaration that she wrote the letter to deliver to the school district and did not publish the letter to any other person.

Lee then argued that the letter did not request an investigation or hearing and did not ask for any action. But the Court held that it is obvious from the content of the letter the parents were requesting that Lee be removed as coach.

The Court of Appeal held that complaints to school authorities about a teacher or principal in the performance of his or her official duties are privileged, pursuant to Section 47, subd. (d) of the Civil Code, holding that a letter written by a parent to school officials containing allegedly libelous statements about the coach was written to prompt official action and was privileged, even though the letter did not request an investigation or hearing and did not ask for any action.

Further, the Court held that it was not required that the letter expressly request an investigation or hearing or that school officials take any particular action. Notwithstanding, it concluded that it was obvious from the content of the letter that the parent was requesting that the coach be fired.

Under Lee’s slander cause of action, the Court held that the parent’s alleged comments to school officials and other “interested” parents of baseball players discussing her concerns about Lee’s conduct were privileged and Lee cannot avoid the privilege by characterizing the discussion among parents as gossip.

Lee last attempt was to claim that after school officials initially determined to retain him, the matter was no longer under consideration in any official proceeding. However, the Court held that the parent asked the school officials to reconsider, which is part of the official proceedings and is as privileged as an initial complaint.

The parent, as the prevailing party in the anti-SLAPP motion, was entitled to attorneys’ fees.


I think the answer to this question might be, more often than not, YES. Coach Lee seems to be doing fine now (see story below).

But sometimes it is the parent who complains who is crushed by the school authorities. Click here for the story of one San Diego parent who spent a week in jail for complaining about a coach.

Coach Lee’s supporters emerge
Claremont Currier
October 17, 2007
Regarding the topic of Claremont High School’s head varsity baseball coach Mike Lee and his past, the Claremont Unified School District along with the majority of CUSD parents are ready to move on with Coach Lee still intact...

...Newbury Park High School parent Debbie Alia said that she was “appalled” while reading a recent Los Angeles Times article on October 3 that focused on the text message issue...“He taught the kids respect, that baseball is a team sport and also taught them not to argue with the umpire or curse..."

Though Mr. Lee resigned from his position as baseball coach at Westlake High School last year and was terminated from his coaching position at Newbury Park High, former principals at Newbury Park and Westlake wrote favorable recommendations on behalf of Mr. Lee when he applied for the coaching position at CHS...

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